Has Data Really Helped Us Understand Aussies Better?

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Companies can push out survey after survey and whole books filled with data, but that doesn’t beat a good ol’ face to face convo, says ZenithOptimedia’s Luisa Howard.

The world of consumer information has opened up.  We have access to more, better, faster data – but does this mean we know Australians better than we did in the past?

My first job in media was in 2001, with my first task to analyse the consumer impact of the Terrorism attacks of September 11.  At that time we utilised consumer polling, surveying, focus groups, interviews and newspaper reports to understand how consumer confidence, spending, political bent and mood had been impacted.  We produced a good report, however it’s clear what made it so different to the reports of today:

  1. Time: It was produced three weeks after the event (which seemed like a fast turn-around)
  2. Numbers: It was based on a research sample (as opposed to the big data available today)

Fast forward to 2014, and the opportunity to understand Australians has opened up exponentially. The socialisation of consumer opinion that has been fostered by social media, and the smart tools we have built to capture this data has changed the game.

Within the space of a few hours, we know in no un-certain terms the effects of events, whether it’s an election or a major disaster.

I’m sure we all agree that the research tools available today (vs. 2001) are different, but have they made our industry better at understanding Australians?

Yes, behavioural data (capturing everything from search patterns to spending patterns) is a huge step forward.  No longer do we rely on inconsistent self-reported data, nor do we need to make behavioural assumptions based on consumer attitudes.

And yes, social media data puts the opinions of thousands of Australians at our fingertips, whilst avoiding the un-natural focus group effect.

But has our industry forgotten about the power of the real consumer voice – and the rich insight it brings?  Has it been left behind?  It seems in many pockets of our industry the answer would sadly be yes

With a purpose to connect brands with people (not numbers), it seem obvious that human interaction must remain a valued part of the research journey.  Data can help drive invaluable consumer insights but it cannot replace the depth a conversation with a young mother in her home in Geelong brings, nor can it replace the insight gained from visiting country NSW to truly understand the weekend entertainment options for teenage guys.

Interestingly, we are observing companies that enjoy a long and established history with data, placing increased value on the consumer voice.  PricewaterhouseCoopers is one of those companies.  Recognising that the accelerating pace of change (technologically and otherwise) meant that traditional data forecasting methods were unable to paint a complete picture, a global series of face to face consumer interviews became a key input into their analysis.

The good news is, it seems we are in a position to have our cake and eat it too.  The world of consumer information has opened right up with data, providing us with a greater opportunity than ever before to understand Australians.  But we still have human interaction to drive the deeper conversations.

Luisa Howard, research director of ZenithOptimedia.

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